Two years ago, when the Yale football team trailed Columbia at halftime of week seven, then-rookie quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 stepped in and guided the Bulldogs to a spectacular comeback win. On Saturday, the Elis return to Wien Stadium looking to keep their repeat-title hopes alive in their first contest without Rawlings since his standout debut.
The Bulldogs (4–2, 2–1 Ivy) will look to continue their winning streak against the Lions (3–3, 0–3), who are still winless in conference play. Although the Elis put together a strong showing to quash Penn last week, a third-quarter leg injury took Rawlings out for the season. Jimmy Check ’21, who has snapped just a handful of balls thus far, will take over at quarterback.
Without Rawlings, the Bulldogs will look to extend their reliable ground game against a Columbia defense that has effectively minimized its opponents’ scoring totals. Team 146’s young but steadily improving defense will also be critical in countering the Lions’ offensive scheme, which rotates players at the signal caller position. With both Princeton and Dartmouth still undefeated through three weeks of league competition, Saturday’s contest will determine whether the Bulldogs are resilient enough to recover from the toughest blow of their already injury-plagued season. A win is key in keeping Yale’s defending title hopes alive.
“We have to control what we can control,” head coach Tony Reno said. “That’s just our preparation and getting better every day. At the end of the day it’s about us and how we play. The opponents don’t really matter. It matters how we play, so we’ve got to play to our standard. When we do those things, we’re pretty good.”
Team 146, which occasionally looked shaky in the first half of their campaign, put together a comfortable win last week against Penn — a traditionally challenging opponent. But just as the Elis are hitting their stride, Rawlings’ season-ending injury poses a huge challenge. The Bulldogs squad is still dealing with the effects of the graduation of many of their star players from last year’s championship-winning roster.
Last year, the Elis narrowly fended off Penn to win by less than a single score and then easily defeated the Lions 23–6. Though Team 146 defeated the Quakers soundly last weekend, walking away with a 23–10 victory, the Lions will prove to be a serious defensive challenge to this year’s Rawlings-less squad.
In last weekend’s victory against Penn, the Elis honed in on their ground game on both sides of the ball. Yale’s defense — which lost several All-Ivy players to graduation last spring and looked hapless against the runs of a situational quarterback in the Elis’ loss to Dartmouth — forced the Quakers to look to the air. Penn’s atrophied rush attempts resulted in just 14 yards for the entire game, and the Yale defense pulled off its best performance all year. This Yale defense should be enough to keep the Lions off the scoreboard and give Check and company the time to generate scoring opportunities.
“We’re finally learning how to actually play with each other,” linebacker Noah Pope ’22 said. “There are a lot of young guys on defense, including myself. We’re finally executing. We’re finally able to make plays. We’re finally realizing our potential and what we can be.”
But Yale’s amped-up defense will not be enough to rout Columbia. The Lions held Penn to just 13 points and Dartmouth — a team that traditionally averages 37 points a game — to its weakest offensive performance of the year with just 28 points.
“They’re very good up front,” Reno said. “Their linebackers play down hill. They’ve got an aggressive coverage. They’ve traditionally been one of the best defenses in our league. They make it really hard to run the ball, especially between the tackles. In the secondary, they’re very good at matching coverages with their routes. They’re a tough team.”
The Lions enter Saturday’s contest still hungry for their first Ancient Eight victory of the season. Their three wins have come at the expense of out-of-conference foes Southern Connecticut State, Georgetown and Marist.
Even prior to Rawlings’ devastating injury, running back Alan Lamar ’20 proved to be a catalyst for the Yale offense against Penn after bursting through a hole in the line for a 47-yard rush on the first play of the game. The huge gain set up the Bulldogs’ first touchdown of the contest, and Lamar continued to power Yale’s scoring. In the midst of an injury to running back and Phil Steele FCS Offensive Freshman of the Year and First Team Freshman All-American Zane Dudek ’21, Lamar has assumed the role of primary ball carrier for the Bulldogs.
This weekend, without the option of a connection between Rawlings and his favorite targets, wideouts Reed Klubnik ’20 and JP Shohfi ’20, Lamar and fellow running backs Spencer Allston ’22 and Trenton Charles ’22 will be even more critical in giving Check some cushion in the air game.
In the home stretch, Yale’s offense will have to learn on the job, adjusting to a new signal-caller while putting enough points on the board. This team is familiar with changes and prides itself with having a “next-man-up” mentality, but Rawlings has been a stalwart on the team’s offense through the 19 games he has started.
“Every other play there’s a new face out there,” offensive lineman Steven Cepalia ’20 said. “The front five guys are standing the same. When I’m playing with them, everything is as tight as it’s ever been. Seeing a new receiver every other play, a new running back: It’s great to see new faces.”
The contest against the Lions kicks off at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium.
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